The rise and fall of the English public (read private) schools--in a chatty, elegantly lurid, but rather overblown and...


THE OLD SCHOOL TIE: The Phenomenon of the English Public Schools

The rise and fall of the English public (read private) schools--in a chatty, elegantly lurid, but rather overblown and presumptuous sequel to The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, Gathorne-Hardy's earlier assault on that ""wafer of privilege,"" the upper/upper-middle classes. After a brief trot through the first 1100 years, the author plunges into the heyday of Tom Brown's School Days--the 19th century--and does a frightfully vivid job of evoking the isolated, hierarchical, and conformist public-school world of beating, bullying, ""fagging,"" obsessions with games, sin, and sex. Harrow in the 1840s was ""an adolescent boy's jungle""; Marlborough (site of a boys' rebellion) was ""an extremely inefficient prison""; the curricula were anti-science and pro-Classics (""What an appalling waste of time""). But, while G-H is a splendidly anecdotal and three-dimensional scenepainter, he is less than totally convincing as a social historian. In his presentation of the public-school system as a ""totalitarian, Church-centered, class-creating, Empire-fulfilling. . . Monolith,"" he juggles madly with period literature, psychology, history, the Kinsey Report, and comparative anthropology--waffling on all those nasty questions of the-chicken-or-the-egg, bogging down in self-defeating hair-splittings (like a refutation of Corelli Barnnett's analysis of the effect of ""team spirit"" on World War I). Still, one has to admire G-H's rather haphazard but honest attempts to view the public-school phenomenon from every conceivable angle--especially when it turns out that he is leading up to a dubious Utopian proposal for abolishing the schools, ""but only in the context of a fundamental social revolution"" (""Why should other people clear up our rubbish for us? . . . it would be comparatively simple to work out rosters and duties""). And, whatever scholars may think of the conclusions here, the sheer amassing of material--testimony from all manner of famous folk, chapters on girls' schools, progressive schools, recent reforms--is an achievement. So: a feverishly witty, mostly fascinating, not particularly well-focused parade down the playing fields of Eton and other ""sexual concentration camps.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1978